If you’ve been outside in Seattle, odds are you’ve seen tents on sidewalks and under bridges. Perhaps you’ve been stopped on street corners for spare change. These are the encounters that often shape our perception of homelessness in Seattle, and additionally drive the narrative we are all familiar with about the “problem” of homelessness. But in our work we’ve had the privilege of getting to hear more of the backstory – we’ve had the opportunity to explore why tents are pitched on sidewalks in the first place.
For example, I recently spoke with a young man on a sunny fall morning who stopped me to ask for bus money. I asked him why he needed the bus money and after a few minutes of conversation he began to share his story. Six months ago he was living with his grandmother, she passed away and his uncle sold the house. He had nowhere to go, and ended up couch surfing before running out of places to stay before ending up in a tent in downtown Seattle. Unfortunately, he had just become sober before losing his home and has been struggling to remain so. The bus money, it turns out, was for him to get to Bellevue to get to the methadone clinic. I asked why he wasn’t going to the clinic in Seattle, he said they couldn’t take him there because they didn’t have room to accept new patients. I asked him if he was looking for a job and he said yes, but his daily three-hour round trip to Bellevue for methadone at eleven o’clock every morning made it difficult to find a job that fit his schedule. It turns out that just surviving everyday is hard and time-consuming work. I gave him the cash I had. “Thanks for listening,” he said, “it means a lot.” He gave me a hug and his phone number.
His story isn’t unique. As we continue to listen to those who are struggling with homelessness we continue to hear stories of economic crisis, family trauma, mental health disorders, and substance abuse. These stories are powerful and bring a new perspective by which we can apply to our work of addressing these complex issues. We have a hunch that the more we listen, the more equipped we’ll be to respond.
If you’ve had similar encounters and have listened to the stories of those struggling with homelessness, we’d love to hear about it. Send us a note here.